I read a piece on Kotaku recently about a group of people who were tricked into working for a company that didn’t actually exist. If you’re new to the gig-based workforce, I highly recommend you check it out.
Scrolling through the comments I saw a lot of responses asking, “Why didn’t they just Google the studio?” or “Who would keep doing work without getting paid?” The truth is, there are a lot of people who want to work in games, and there are new studios popping up all the time. It’s an exciting industry, where we sometimes get to play as much as we work, and there are still success stories of young developers turning their artistic visions into massive hits in the indie space. Any opportunity can seem appealing when you’re trying to get your foot in the door — and when you’re passionate about a project, sometimes it’s hard to walk away… even when working conditions aren’t fair.
I handle most of thrilling day-to-day business duties at Rose City Games. We’re a small indie game studio, and we’ve been doing this since 2015. Whether you’re a first-time freelancer or a studio starting to hire, I hope that by sharing some of our experiences you might avoid some heartbreak down the road. We’ve made plenty of mistakes, tried our best to learn from them, and are still building systems to ensure that our studio is an attractive place to get a gig.
So, what’s a contractor?
Independent workers, freelancers, sell-swords, mercenaries… (thanks Power Thesaurus.) Contractors are self-employed, they set their own hours and rates, and they can usually work from wherever they want! A lot of folks working in the indie space start out as contractors for other studios. In fact, when Rose City Games started, we were mostly a service provider — bouncing from one gig to the next and juggling finding work as much as we were doing the actual work.
Doing years of client work has helped give us some perspective on what a good working relationship should feel like. It prepared us to be able to spot bad deals early. This is something that, more often than not, folks learn the hard way (and we did, too).
Onboarding is the process integrating new team members onto a project. Whenever you sign onto a new project, there’s usually this brief period where you’re getting all your ducks in a row. Signing contracts, working out payment terms, determining the best communication channels… it’s all tedious admin stuff, but I promise it’s important.
The goal of onboarding is to set both parties expectations up front, which usually keeps tough projects from getting too personal and ugly. And the first step to all of this is a good contract! Now that we have our onboarding process mostly locked in at Rose City Games, getting the ball rolling with new hires and clients is a breeze.
Let’s talk about contracts
We almost never start working with someone without an executed contract in hand. Not even our closest friends. Especially not with our closest friends. Having a contract eliminates so many potential headaches, like agreements on when you get paid, when ownership of the work transfers, and what happens if it all blows up.
Agreeing to terms up front means everyone can be held accountable, and if someone isn’t holding up their end of the deal, you’ve got an exit strategy. A good contract should have protections for both parties in case things go south, and those assurances are best way to maintain relationships, even when things don’t work out. If a client or contractor doesn’t want to sign a contract, or says they want to keep things informal… that’s a major red flag.
A good lawyer can help make sure you don’t sign on to something too scary, and they can point out risks in your agreement that could come back to bite you later. If you’re going to be freelancing professionally, you gotta have one!
Our lawyer has helped us draft contractor agreements, work for hire contracts, and NDAs. We have standard templates that we use for each project, unless a client prefers to use their own. It can be pricey up front, but once it’s done, you’re saving time in the long run.
If you’re nervous that you can’t afford a lawyer, at least try reaching out first. You might be able to work out a deal where you make payments to them after your first check from a client or receive a very important initial free consultation. If you’re looking down the barrel of a long term project without legal council, you could be getting yourself into a heap of trouble — it’s worth it, I promise!
Know your scope
It can be really tough to determine a full timeline for games, especially if you’re working in an Agile development process. If you are a studio looking to hire a contractor, the risk is getting your scope wrong and either running out of time, or running out of budget. As a contractor, you should watch out for studios that try to get you to do more work than you agreed to up front.
There are a few ways to avoid tough situations for both parties, such as setting up per assets payment terms, or starting off with a smaller chunk of work while the project’s scope is being tuned. Here’s a solid reference from NYU to keep in your back pocket.
Communicate early and often
Most project headaches can be avoided with good communication. There’s an old saying about assumptions and asses that still holds up to this day — if you’ve got questions or concerns, don’t sit on them! If you struggle with giving and receiving feedback, here’s a great GDC talk by Jeff Hesser on the subject.
Once you kick things off, make sure you have regular check-ins scheduled. It helps everyone stay on the same page for what’s going well, bring up issues that need addressing, and letting the team know if something is blocking you from progressing. These meetings could be once a week, or 10 minutes at the start of each work day, depending on the scope of the project and everyone’s availability.
If you’re working with someone for the first time, agreeing to a smaller scope first can be a safer way to test the waters before signing up for a long-term project. This could be creating a prototype, concept art, or a small patch of sound effects.
A trial period is great for contractors because if your client super sucks, you don’t have to stick it out for months and months. It’s also great for clients because if you’re not getting the work you need, you didn’t assign your entire art budget to someone who can’t get the job done. It makes parting ways much more amicable.
Also, make sure you get paid for this! Don’t do spec work, even if you’re just starting out. If someone offers you rev share, and insists you’re gonna be rolling in it as soon as the game comes out, have yourself a nice little chuckle and get outta there. Save the free work for game jams.
Make sure you’ve got this outlined in your contracts! You should have an agreed upon schedule for when you’re supposed to invoice, and terms like net 15/30/45 for how long it’ll take to get paid. You could put also include penalty in your contract for late payments, and a cause for the transfer of ownership applying after payment has been received for extra protection!
Here’s a few different payment styles we usually work with:
Hourly — maybe the most common, but potentially the most dangerous. It takes a long time to get good at estimating your hours, so there’s a risk of getting screwed over on both sides. Now, we only do hourly contracts with people we have long term relationships with, with a proven history of good estimates.
Per asset — this is great for artists and audio folks. It’s important for us to know our scope ahead of time, and for our contractors to know how long it’ll take to get the job done. Make sure you agree to a set number of revisions, and have a process for how those are received, reviewed, and re-delivered.
Retainer — this is the most rare for us, and we only really do it when we need someone on an Agile project long term. We’re basically paying for a pool of hours to do general work within an agreed upon general scope that needs to be flexible. This is reserved for our most trusted people!
Contract to hire
We’re a new company, and hiring employees can be pretty scary. We like to work with folks for awhile before putting a ring on it. We’ve done “contract to hire” with a few people now, and it’s worked well for us. But be warned: some companies may make promises about turning a contract gig into full-time employment down the road — and when it doesn’t pan out, you could be left disappointed.
It’s important that everyone is on the same page about what needs to happen for that shift, because there are lots of reasons it could fall through. In short, don’t get your hopes up, and have a backup plan for when your contract period ends. Make sure you’re planning your next move before then so you don’t end up with no work!
Remember: getting better at all of this stuff takes time, but the benefits are worth it. As a freelancer or a new studio, sustainability is going to be one of your biggest challenges, and knowing what good onboarding looks like, and having your systems in place to get good gigs can make all the difference.
We’re lucky to work with some amazingly talented contractors and cool clients on a regular basis, and those relationships take effort on both sides. Set your expectations up front, communicate well, and make sure you sign a dang contract!